On July 12, 1944, the troops of the 2nd Baltic front breached the Nazi defense near Novorzhev, the Pskov region. The operation also resulted in the liberation of the Mikhailovskoye village, which is one of the sacred places for Russians, connected to the name of the great poet Alexander Pushkin. It was here that he wrote the brilliant chapters of Eugene Onegin, the immortal Boris Godunov and many of his other lyric masterpieces.
Simultaneously with Mikhailovskoye, the soldiers of the 53rd Guards Division and the 321st Rifle Division of the 3rd Baltic Front, liberated Pushkinskiye Gory where Russia’s celebrated poet is buried at the wall of the Svyatogorsk Assumption Monastery. His mother, father, brother Platon, and grandfather and grandmother Gannibal were also buried here.
When fighting for Pushkinskiye Gory, the Soviet troops did not use artillery support so as not to damage Pushkin’s grave. Fierce battles for the settlement continued from July 8 until July 12, 1944. Finally, the enemy was driven out and “Pushkin was liberated from the three-year Nazi captivity,” as an officer reported to his commanders.
Having driven the enemy out of Pushkinskiye Gory, many soldiers and officers rushed to Pushkin’s grave to make sure it was intact and to give tribute to the great poet. But what they saw in place of the memorial was a garbage heap and a warning sign “Mine area,” which had been hastily put there by Senior Lieutenant Starcheus. The young officer had been the first to witness the blasphemy of the Nazis.
Retreating, Hitler’s troops mined both the grave and the entire Svyatogorsk hill. They dug a tunnel under it and filled it with carefully disguised mines and air bombs, each weighing 120 kg.
Soldiers of the 12th Rizhskaya Engineer Brigade participated in clearing Pushkinskiye Gory. They had to solve the secret of the new mines the Nazis had put in the monastery courtyard. The German lethal “charade” did take its toll, with numerous soldiers killed. Having completed the dangerous task, the troops saluted Pushkin’s grave, placed a plaque near the Svyatogorsk hill that read “Let us take revenge for our Pushkin and our comrades!” and moved westwards with the front.
Those who were killed were buried in different places. I want to describe a small cemetery at the foot of the Svyatogorsk hill. It has 256 graves. You enter the cemetery from Pushkinskaya Street and here they are, those who “died for Pushkin,” all together, tomb after a tomb, like in formation. The memorial plaque bears the names of those who fell a few dozens meters away from the poet’s grave and now rest in peace nearby. As you read them, there is an ethnic miniature of the Soviet Union building in front of your eyes – there are Russians, Ukrainians, Asians, soldiers from the Baltic republics and the Caucasus…
… German aviation started bombing Pushkinskiye Gory a few days after the war had begun. In early July, one of the bombs destroyed the dome of the Svyatogorsk monastery, some others exploded nearby, but Pushkin’s grave – by will of fate - remained intact.
On July 7, 1941, the 10th corps of Hitler’s North Army Group attempted to seize Pushkinskiye Gory and move further inland. They came as an avalanche on the Soviet positions, which were defended by the 24th Rifle and 21st Mechanized Corps of the 27th Army. By the night of July 9, the Nazis turned the left flank of the defense and stormed into Pushkinskiye Gory. The following morning, the 24th Corps, with support from tanks of the 21st Corps, drove them out of the settlement to the left bank of Velikaya River. But Hitler’s forces attempted another attack and eventually seized Pushkinskiye Gory. They turned the local school into a commandant’s office, the hospital into a Gestapo, the cultural center into a prison and the pharmacy into an administrative office.
Immediately, a guerrilla movement emerged in the area, which grew stronger day after day. By the end of 1943, there were four detachments and several brigades active in the area. For over a year, guerrillas blasted 13 enemy troop trains, 54 cars, and 40 wagons. They destroyed three garrisons, the municipal administration office, five bridges and three warehouses, killing or wounding about 1,000 Nazis. In July 1944, the guerrilla forces joined the Red Army.
Of course, the war played a disastrous role in the fate of the Pushkin reserve museum. The attempts to evacuate the museum’s relics in the first days of the war failed. The occupants barbarously plundered the memorabilia. They took away some paintings by the Italian and Dutch schools, bronze items and antique furniture. In 1944, when the front was back to Pushkinskiye Gory, the Nazis began felling century-old fir-trees, using them to reinforce their Panther defense line.
The occupation brought grief and destruction to this land. It took sappers almost five years after the war to clear it of mines – they found about 4,000 in the Svyatogorsk monastery alone. They worked at their own risk and peril and many died. “But as soon as the sappers had cleared the first paths, residents of nearby villages rushed to Mikhailovskoye,” - Semyon Geichenko, the famous Pushkin expert and the first post-war director of the Pushkin State Memorial Historical and Cultural Reserve Museum, wrote in his book “Pushkinskiye Gory”. “They offered help and were willing to do anything. And these were people who often didn’t even have a home, as the Nazis had burned down many villages in the area… This love towards Pushkin made me happy and, honestly speaking, I thought about the future with a light heart… It was then that I began seriously thinking about Pushkin’s unparalleled fate, about his unique mission: his spirit inspired one with great thoughts of one’s Motherland.”